Monday, May 9, 2016

Alicia Florrick's Powerful Tragedy

The series finale of The Good Wife, which aired Sunday night, is pure, unadulterated tragedy. Michelle King, one of the show’s writers, explains the jarring slap in the last scene with the statement about Alicia:

“The victim becomes the victimizer.”

The show supposedly comes full circle from the premiere episode in which she slaps her husband for publicly humiliating her. Now she’s being slapped for similar practices, by Diane, the woman we’ve secretly hoped for years would become a feminist mentor to her.

The idea that Alicia could be a powerful victimizer of others while her life has slowly gone to shit, 22-episode-season after season, is what makes the ending to the show so revolutionary.

As an audience watching a heroine for seven years, we held Alicia up to high moral and emotional standards, and we hoped she would make at least one “correct” decision to cut through her dozens of balls constantly up in the air. We hoped she would stop worrying about her familial obligations and give in to her feelings for Will. When it seemed things with Will weren’t going to work out, we rooted for her other love story to come through – her love story with the law. Somehow, we hoped, she would open her own firm, or become a successful politician and be able to utilize her “St. Alicia” image to gain power and influence. When she faltered in court, we yearned for her family to give her meaning and purpose. Instead, her connection with Will spiraled into intense hatred, he was tragically shot to death before they calmed their vitriolic relationship, she lost a political campaign and was kicked out of her own law firm, and she never quite liked the decisions her children made for themselves despite the sacrifices she made for them.

Considering things started out poorly for Alicia – she was that woman who stood by her governor husband in front of the whole world when he cheated on her with several prostitutes – we expected they would get the slightest bit better. But in one scene this season between Alicia and her friend and partner, Lucca, it was clear just how much worse things had gotten for our heroine since the show’s premiere:

“Sometimes I swear I just want to go into my bedroom, pull the covers over my head, and never do anything ever again,” she says. She says she doesn’t get the point of life. She doesn’t even know if she likes her own kids. “I hurt,” she says, “and I want it over, I just want it to end.”

Those are strong words - bordering on suicidal - for a television heroine, and they are never resolved. At the end of the show, Alicia is still grasping for a “point of it all,” alone - no magical prince in Will, no cowboy romance in Jason, no complacency in Peter, no feminist mentor in Diane.

Yet according to King, she is a victimizer, not a victim. The writers were still able to take her full circle. Because a woman’s power shouldn’t have to exist in a resolved world where her life has been tied up in little ribbons, or packaged to a certain brand of American happy endings, or edgy feminist independence. Beyonce successfully commoditized smashing windows in response to her husband’s alleged infidelity. But most women aren’t Beyonces. Most women are Alicias. We’re trying to make the best out of several bad situations, dreaming up ghosts of our ex-boyfriends so they can tell us what to do, and the ex-boyfriends almost never pass along the right advice.

Women deserve to know they are powerful regardless of how stupid their decisions have been that have led them to their pain. Because bad things happen to good women who make horrible decisions, just like they happen to good men who make horrible decisions. In the show’s last scene, Alicia is depressed and alone, and as powerful as ever. Kinda sounds like almost every male protagonist in a romantic comedy, doesn’t it?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Moving out

This week I packed up all my stuff for my parents to move out of my childhood house. When I did a final sit in my echo-y room, I felt so worried that my life would be forgotten, most of all by me. This is an irrational fear that because I can’t remember all the days of my life at once, they all become the heels of the brain's bread loaves, uneaten, unacknowledged and left to the garbage rats. When you’ve lived for 28 years, there are a lot of years, and a lot of moments within those years, that felt like they changed your life. But you can't recall them most of the time, so how would they have changed your life?

I feel very lucky I had such a good time in my house, and that the next people to live in the house will appreciate it (they’re getting married in the backyard) and that it didn’t burn down and I didn’t have all my things ruined or anything. But with my good fortune and good memories comes weight. I feel a tremendous weight, a responsibility to remember everything for young Sarah. I feel like I have to take care of her and comfort her and tell her that everything turns out ok. I feel like she yearns to know that 2016 Sarah is alive. That being 28 is possible. And she aches to be acknowledged by me.

It feels overwhelming to do all the little Sarahs justice in my mind.

There’s the Sarah whose most stressful part of her day was someone else making her take a bath. She rode her bike around the block and was scared of the bees in the trees. The people who lived at the end of the block seemed like they lived in another country. There were always skeletons under her bed and robbers waiting to kill her and vampires itching to suck her blood under the thin blanket with which she covered her neck when she was falling asleep.

There’s the Sarah who sat with her Bearded Collie in the front window and told her about her day, most of the time through stares and emotions. When she was supposed to be practicing the piano she instead looked at herself in the reflection of the angled front windows because when she danced, it looked like she was a chorus of dancers doing the cha-cha perfectly in sync. There’s the Sarah who made her dad carry her to the car when a hubcap fell off because she was terrified of bare tires because they were so ugly behind a missing fa├žade.

There’s the Sarah who when 9/11 happened, every helicopter or plane in the sky was her demise. She and her family were bombed in many of her nightmares. She played “store” in the computer room and pretended to scan shiny shirts into an imaginary cash register because women who checked her out at stores were fully adults. She watched syndicated FRIENDS episodes on TBS on the old television in the basement until her mom yelled that it was too late and she was being irresponsible.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah had approximately 30 minutes after the bus dropped her off from high school to sing Fiona Apple or Barbra Streisand in the kitchen and family room before her mom got home from work. She sprinted on the treadmill for an hour while watching the Catwoman transformation scene in Batman Returns on repeat. Sometimes she worked out to the funky 70s score to Barbra Streisand’s most feminist film, Up the Sandbox. She was overwhelmed, overworked and cried a lot in her pink and green room.

A few days ago, as I was procrastinating from packing anything, I randomly looked at my profile’s reflection in a framed picture on my wall.

I thought to myself, "you're the woman you wanted to become."

I am healthy, I am sure of myself and my ability to handle my life alone. I'm the cool Sarah I wrote to in my diaries all the time. The one with freedom and wisdom and the legal ability to be an adult. It’s so strange, but I’m really fucking proud of all the Sarahs for getting me to this point. They should know that every one of their micromoments brought me to me, and each one was a gift, even if most of them do rest forever in the walls of that house.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Here's the etymology of "Turn Down for What"

Since "Turn Down For What" by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon is clearly the dance anthem of this sad yet very fun generation, I've had ample occasion to think about what it means. And I'm clearly not the only one.

Duh It's a Rhetorical Question

Ok, fine, we all know "turn down for what?" is a rhetorical question. Like, for what reason would I turn down, "turn down" meaning the opposite of getting "turnt," or "turnt up."

But to fully wrap my mind around where this phrase came from and why exactly it's so catchy and cool, I had to trace the origins of all its parts.

Let's turn up the breaking down business by breaking "Turn Down For What" down.

Turn down.

Throughout history, there have been so many things developed technology-wise to turn down. Google's book search for "turn down" showed that before lanterns, people expectedly only used the phrase to mean reject something for an alternate choice. Like, "I turned the boy down on our third date because he was too into the fitness subreddit." Or, "President Obama turned down Michelle Obama because she was too hot." Stuff like that.

Or, turn-down (or sometimes even turn down, without a hyphen) was often used as a noun. Like a "turn-down collar." But that's irrelevant, nouns are irrelevant here.

With the invention of heat and a lantern came the invention of to "turn" something "down." Then that translated into turning the radio or the television down in the 30's and 50's, respectively. 

By the end of the 20th century, there were numerous things you could turn down, if they were too loud or high. Your iPhone ringtone. The volume of your Nintendo. Your enthusiasm about something going viral. There were so many things to turn down that turning them up wasn't even exciting anymore. We had to do something - SOMETHING - to make turning something up an event to remember.

Pertinent Tangent: Turnt

(oh great, the two most tired idioms in pop culture right now, together, in one JPEG, with a mini icon of beer pong. Thanks, Google Image.)

In 2005, a girl named Erica Peters knew "turning up" was like, so snooze. So she got the cue somewhere to kick it up a notch. More specifically, she give IT a T at the end. On Urban Dictionary.

"Turnt" to Erica Peters, the first one to post about "turnt" in Mr. Urban Dick in good old 2005 meant:

"Horny, Drunk,f*cked up!! Crunk!!
Damn, I am all turnt on! or I am getting Turnt to night at the club!"

Well, "turnt on" was eventually foregone in favor of the more popular "turnt up," but 2005 had the right idea.

In my opinion, there are two reasons that "turned" might have gained its cooler, sluttier older sister, "turnt."

Turnt theory #1: It's southern dialect. Google book search shows any use of the word "turnt" before 2005 was purely a dialectical spelling to portray a southern character. 

This theory is fascinating to me because what makes a southern person so apt to replace an "ed" with a "t" in this case? Is it that they are purely making a mistake about the past tense of "turn?" Is there an element of definitiveness they subconsciously add to "turn" by adding the harsher "T" sound at the end, in order to connote that something has been fully turned? My guess it might have been a combination of both.

Turnt theory #2: It's a rhyming thing. "Turn" rhymes with "burn," and people say something has been "burnt" a lot. Something has been "turnt" sounds very similar. 

British English and American English have differed in the way they've historically used "burned" and "burnt." In the case of American English, people use "burnt" more often to describe an object that has been completely burned. Like, Americans would probably say "I ate a burnt piece of toast" before saying, "I burnt this piece of toast." So, in my opinion, adding a "T" to the end of "burn" connotes a more complete process of having been burned for good, which reflects its harsher sound. 

Which brings us back to "turnt." Turnt's structure closely follows that of the way most Americans use "burnt." We say something is turnt, something is getting turnt, something has been turnt (usually us). So we're the direct object; something fully turned us up. The structure of the language gives the impression of a loss of control usually involved with substance use, which is something that "getting turnt" totally means. 

Here are the conclusions I came to about turnt: It is cool because it's offers a curve ball in terms of confident ending annunciation,  and it is associated with calm and collected southern living.

(lol) (It's not accurate in any way, I just think it's funny.)

For What?

("FOR WHAAAAAT [am I locked in here]???? I'm white and fluffy!!!" it says. The only thing that would make this picture sadder is if it were a puppy.)

"For What" definitely lives in "Turn Down"'s shadow. But don't get yourself twisted: it's an irreplaceable part of the rhetoric. Lil' Jon could have written, "Why Would We Turn Down?" and where would we be today? Definitely ALL THE WAY turned down. And for what?

What's so cool about "For What?" It packs a two-syllable punch, that's for sure. It sounds like a kid whose mom asks him to clean his room and he's yelling back at her from a pile of dirty laundry. "FOR WHAT, MOM? No one comes in here except me anyway!" Then he masturbates and cries because it's true. 

For me, the coolest thing about "For What" is it's a structure not often used in English. And, indulge me here, it's used a lot in Russian. They have two ways of saying "Why?" in Russian: "Pochemu?" and "Za shto?" The first variant is more abstract, like, "What is the reason for this world!!!!!!111," and the second is literally asking, "For what?" like give me a tangible result of this thing.

Bottom Line

Although the EDM oscillation between verses and chorus thrusts the song forward, "Turn Down For What," which is derived from its much less popular polar opposite, "Turn Up For Many Reasons," has the anthem X-factor mostly because of its lyrical structure. The kind of structure that floats up out of the dust of tiny baby pop culture trending hashtivist angels, and then enters the hands of nerd bloggers like me, and then, after a few months, joins the ranks of historic passe decisions that Miley Cyrus stores away in the part of her butt cheeks that claps. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Cold Shoulder War

You might remember when Putin annexed Crimea sometime at the beginning of the year. You know, back in those days when the Putin backlash was strong. The Russian president's club of western haters has subsided a bit because we've moved on to bigger animals of foreign policy like Iraq and Israel, but he'll do something to make it come back, I guarantee it. He'll make another statement about how being gay is wrong, or ban Facebook. And when the American media discourse falls back into the Putin-bashing mode, politicians will feel the need to chisel out some new vehemently anti-Russian policy. Like when, for example, some aldermen in Chicago in late March felt the need to suspend the 17-year “Sister City” relationship between Chicago and Moscow. 

That’ll teach Putin a lesson for annexing Crimea, they said. It was supposed to be an “important step” toward expressing “outrage” to Putin, but the mayor declined to sign it. That might have had something to do with the fact that there are approximately 15,000 Russian immigrants living in Chicago, according to 2009 American Community Survey data. Chicago Sister Cities International has thrown fashion shows, meals, concerts and events of all kinds promoting Russian culture since 1997.

Between the time of Putin's anti-gay law and his royal mess of Sochi, at least 40 of 76 U.S. cities with Russian Sister cities formed similar online petitions to suspend their Sister City relationships. So much time and energy went into garnering support for the anti-gay “propaganda” and anti-annexation petitions. What would happen if cities spent that energy trying to improve their already existing foreign exchange programs, many of which have persisted even through the Cold War?

"Citizen diplomacy" is the fancy reason for Sister Cities International. The organization was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the interest of using average citizens as political ambassadors for their country, whether purposefully or as a result of some other motivation. “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it,” the former president smirked in 1959.

Here's citizen diplomacy in action: no one from Chicago knows anything about Moscow, and vice versa. I asked many of my friends living in Chicago what they knew about Moscow. They said it was dreary, the Kremlin was there and the KGB used to exist. When I was in Moscow and mentioned I was from Chicago, I received one of two gestures in return from the people living there: either, “Oh, Da Bulls!” or “Boom boom! Al Capone.” Maybe it's just me because I love Russian history and culture, but I think we should mutually learn more about each other.

A friend I studied with in St. Petersburg in 2009 said she often struggled with the rough misunderstandings between Americans and Russians. My friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she works for the U.S. government, said if Russians and Americans do not actively try to understand one another, they're at risk of becoming completely disconnected, rotting in “echo chambers of their own rhetoric.” Real diplomacy, she said, only starts once the “conversation juices start flowing.” 

Ask anyone who's been to Russia, even those fluent in Russian, and they'll say they've had enough awkward moments and misunderstandings to last a lifetime. Just existing in the same place and doing the same menial task can work wonders for ironing out the folds of misconceptions between people.

Everyday commonalities are essential in even the most high profile international policy conversations. We saw this when Obama tried to relate to Putin over sports during their press conference about Syria. He announced to the press that the two had bonded over complaints that they were getting older, which made it harder for both of them to play their sport of choice. “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” Obama said, to laughter from the press. “And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Putin did not take Obama’s statement as a joke, but rather he thought Obama was trying to make him feel more comfortable by painting himself as weak. "The President is trying to put me at ease with the fact that he’s becoming weaker,” Putin said. It was a moment lost in translation, and it underscored the value of communicating via the language of hobbies and culture. 

For those politicians who want to tell Putin off and spread democracy, Sister Cities could be the way to do that. A Sister City relationship is arguably an important means through which a country with more institutionalized freedoms (America) can influence a less democratic country (Russia). Exchanges like Sister City events are “the only way that Russians will have access to real information,” Ukrainian-American Luba Yurchyk said. Yurchyk, who was born in Ukraine, lives in Chicago and keeps in consistent contact with many Russians, said several of her friends living in Russia are frightened that whatever freedom of the press they had before is being squandered. Many told her their dismay at Putin closing them off from most independent channels of journalism and world news. “So what would it hurt for a couple of people from Chicago to talk to a couple of people from Moscow?”

Moscow and Chicago are cities with exhaustively different expectations of their languages, their governments (local and national), and their lives. What they share is a desire to appear vibrant and heterogeneous to the other. Many Americans don’t agree with Obama or Bush's policies. And many Russians don’t agree with Putin's. Sister City events reveal opportunities for people to bond over their dissent.

There will always be Americans and Russians who fundamentally disagree about urgent and far-reaching issues. But if a friendship is formed in some way or another on the ground, international policies could slowly patch conflict with mutual understanding of these divisions. We need to stop creating policies out of alienated antagonism and pause to appreciate our sisters. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

33 Signs We are Actually All Human Beings and Not Basic Bitches

"Big salads at Cheesecake Factory." "UGGs." "Instagram geotags." "Star tattoos on their foot."

These are four out of "33 Things That Every Basic B*tch Likes," according to Elite Daily (asterisk theirs). The realest "basic bitch" indicator of the whole article is a header called "Toasters." Apparently, "basic bitches" love their toasters:

Toasters are the epitome of basic b*tches. They can make anything in the toaster (except, heaven forbid, sliced bread), everything tastes better in the toaster, they enjoy the friendly chime of the toaster, they look like toasters... Those basic b*tches, the closest they've come to using real kitchen appliances is returning duplicates from their bridal registry.

Oh totally, those basic bitches are so basic that they like to use their modern day appliances to make their food crunchy! Jeez louise, that is so basic I am like seeing level 1 math as I roll my eyes into the back of their basic tiny little lids.

These so-called "basic bitches," namely the ones who are somehow known for their love affairs with a machine that can heat their breakfast quickly and efficiently, got me thinking. I did a little googling around for both the origin and the perpetuation of the "basic bitch."

It didn't take me long to find several listicles claiming to have the original and snarky look (snarky is probably too flattering of a word, here) into what makes a woman not only a bitch, but a "basic bitch." I learned from sites like Mass Appeal, Thought Catalog, Oh No They Didn't (which is still on Livejournal, evidently) and my personal favorite, Black Girls are Easy, that "basic bitch" is pretty much a code word for any woman who wants to fit in but is, unfortunately for her, too transparent or forthcoming to hide her conformist desires.

Actually, I'm going to put what I learned in even more "basic" terms: a "basic bitch" is anyone who possesses the qualities you either hate about yourself or are deathly afraid of having. And it's kind of a really ugly way to put another woman down. What could be more insulting than calling someone literally so normal that she is unenjoyable to be around? At least when a woman is a "bitch," she can be her own special "bitch." As a "basic bitch," she is confined to the role of someone so passe and predictable that for her to try is a waste of space.

"Basic bitches," like Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes, according to the kind of internet bloggers who grab onto these types of "urban" buzzwords and force their relevance for the bored 9 to 5 readership. "Basic bitches" also like posting selfies, wearing brand-name fashion for the masses and depending on men to calculate their self worth. They listen to top 40 radio and name their dogs after people. They're really into their horoscopes and watch nothing but bad television (I saw Say Yes to the Dress in about four listicles).

Some contradictions I found about a "basic bitch": A "basic bitch" loves a good sale, but she is obsessed with designer labels. A "basic bitch" brags about her boyfriend on social media, but she's a giant slut who gives head a lot. A "basic bitch" refuses to go camping or play sports, but she loves to work out and talks about going to the gym all the time.

A writer over at Black Girls are Easy wrote that girls are "basic bitches" if they lack ambition and hate on other women. And she totally planted a truth bomb about how calling someone a "basic bitch" reveals your own insecurity:

When you go out to the club and get your 4th of July ass bounce on you’re going to feel a need to look at another female and refer to her as a Basic Bitch. Before you pass judgment on her, look at yourself. This is the part of the movie where Haley Joel says, “I see dead people” and Bruce Willis says, “Where, little nigga?” If you are in the same room as women you deem basic, what does that make you? You are in the same basic club trying to get pulled by the same basic men they are. The fact that you are breathing the same air with that level of primitive hoe is proof that your life took a wrong turn and you, Miss “bad bitch”, may be the most basic of them all.

BUT, in her weirdly shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-with-your-own-judgments type humor, the author managed to miss the point, which is that a "basic bitch" is in the eye of the beholder. It's a way for women to put other women down by measuring them in appearance and the way they perform their personalities. That's why a woman putting down another woman for being a "basic bitch" is really just a "basic bitch" herself. She's living the "basic bitch" mentality rooted in brand recognition and empty feelings of superiority. Calling someone else "basic" perfectly illustrates where your own priorities lie.

Something really important to understand about using the term "basic bitch" on someone else is engaging in that action deepens whatever divide there is between women of different socioeconomic backgrounds whose indicators of wealth and popularity differ. A pair of UGGs might be "basic" to one Elite Daily blogger based in Manhattan with no care in the world except to garner clicks. But that same pair of UGGs could be golden to a 16-year-old girl whose single mother invested her Best Buy paychecks to buy them for her daughter on Christmas. And income gap aside, women should not have to hesitate to flaunt the clothes they like for fear of having their motivations questioned.

What's the big deal, you're probably asking? "Basic bitch" is just a funny way of saying someone's boring or they're wearing something you thought was cool in 8th grade. The big deal is, if you spend the time to get to know other kinds of women, the chances are there is something at least a little less boring about them than you originally thought. And if they're wearing something you thought was cool in 8th grade, maybe you should take that as a chance to consider the possibility of that article of clothing coming back in style. Let me remind you, the newest fashion trend hitting the streets, "normcore," literally takes its inspiration from what is considered "basic." One woman's "basic bitch" is another woman's treasure. Because, if there's anything that - what, like four waves of feminism? - have taught us, it's that all women are f*cking treasures (asterisk mine).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In which the coolest Ukrainian woman ever explains some things to me

It's 2 PM, I'm riding in an elevator in Chicago's loop down 42 floors with six other people, and we've just come out of a round table discussion about Ukraine. I have a migraine, and I want to get out of the city. The round table discussion was with a couple of prominent Ukrainian American politicians, journalists and educators who support Ukraine's sovereignty and transition into a western democracy.

Two college dudes are talking in the elevator about how they're not gonna remember the names of whoever said that kinda interesting thing about Ukraine earlier. Then a woman in the corner, dressed in a bowler's hat and olive green suit a la Katharine Hepburn, says, "If you don't remember anything else from this afternoon, guys, just remember that it's pronounced Kyiv - not Kiev."

The whole elevator collectively laughs. There are rumblings of, "yeah, that's crazy, we didn't know how to pronounce the name of a giant city." Earlier in the day, at the round table, the politicians reminded us that Ukrainians pronounce their city that we might know as Kiev, like Kyiv, long Y.

The woman smiles and arches her eyebrows cleverly. "You know, we petitioned The New York Times for 15 years to get them to write Kyiv instead of Kiev," she says.

"Really!" I involuntarily emit.

"Yeah! For so long, they were pronouncing it Kiev, like the Russians do. It's Kyiv, K-Y-I-V, like Kay-iv. That's the Ukrainian."

The elevator door opens and I have to ask her more. "Excuse me?" I hurry after her. "Can you tell me more about what you said about The New York Times and Ukrainian?"

"Of course!" she says, genuinely enthusiastic to be talking about it. "We would just like the world to pronounce the names of our cities correctly. And to drop the "the" before Ukraine. You wouldn't say The France or The Germany, right? So why The Ukraine? The, like in The United States, means something collective. Ukraine is no longer a part of a collective entity of Soviet republics, it's its own sovereign country."

She goes on to tell me that Ukrainians want respect for their own language, but they are relaxed when it comes to speaking Russian. That's not to say she isn't proud of speaking Ukrainian:

"Ukrainian is softer and more musical than Russian, because it's rooted more in Greek. Russian is a Germanic language so it's harsher. But no one in Ukraine makes a big deal about which language you speak."

She introduces herself as Luba. Then she tells me that Putin is attached to Ukraine in an "aggressive" way, but Ukraine is determined to break free and become a European country.

"For Putin, Russia without Ukraine is nothing. But Ukraine without Russia is everything," she says.

"It is a fight to death at this point. We cannot have a normal life with Russia on our back."

I thank her for her time, and she asks me which publication I'm writing for. I say, this might be published in The Moscow Times, but I don't know yet. She laughs a hearty laugh. "Oh honey," she says, "They won't publish anything I say."

"But it's in English, and it's independently owned," I retort.

"It doesn't matter anymore, Putin can erase whatever he wants," she says.

Luba was a banker on Wall Street for 15 years. She knows the benefits and repercussions of capitalism, and she wants them for her homeland of Ukraine.

We say our goodbyes, and I promise to publish her quotes somewhere, even if The Moscow Times won't give them a chance.